20th century the term Danube Swabian came into vogue to describe the
descendants of the Germans settlers who had responded to the call of the Habsburg
Emperors and first established their communities in the early 18th
century. During the 20th century the Danube Swabians found themselves
living between different worlds. They knew the world of the other nationalities
among whom they lived. Observed and adapted what was helpful in their
relationships with them as well as met their own goals.
as individuals, families and as village communities as if they were islands
surrounded by people of other nationalities, values, language, faith, customs and
between “East” and “West” if we think in terms of the division of the Church. The
Slovenes and Croats belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. The Serbs,
Montenegrins and Macedonians belonged to the Orthodox Church of the East and the
Protestant minority could not even train its clergy in the territory of Croatian
State. There were also Moslems in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was no
ecumenicity. The Croatian clergy along with the help of the Ustaschi would
attempt to force the conversion of the Serbs living in their Independent State of
Croatia that emerged during the Second World War and committed countless
atrocities against them with the support of the clergy and hierarchy.
island of Corfu after World War I representatives of Serbia and the recently
established “Yugoslavian” Committee met to design an independent state. On
July 20, 1917 the Pact of Corfu was concluded. Nikolai Paschitsch represented the
Serbian government and Dr. Ante Trumbitsch as leader of the Yugoslavian Committee
established a “democratic kingdom” of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the
dynasty of the Serbian princely Karadjordjewitsch family. This kingdom was to
incorporate the State of Serbia, the princedom of Montenegro and all of the South
Slavs of the Danubian Monarchy of Austria-Hungary: the Croats, Serbs and
feared the Serb’s overwhelming power and the Serbian drive for greatness. They
would have rather been an independent state of their own but then they would not
have succeeded in annexing Dalmatia, Istria and the islands at Italy’s expense.
Croatia had been part of the Austro-Hungarian alliance with Germany that had lost
the war and Italy was one of the winners. The Prince Regent, Alexander,
proclaimed the new Kingdom on December 1, 1918 on behalf of his ailing father,
Peter I. The Croatian leaders Dr. Ante Paveltisch and Stefan Raditsch spoke out
were held for representatives to sit in the National Assembly that would design a
constitution. The German minority living in the new state were not permitted to
vote. June 28, 1921 by only a slight majority the Constitution was passed.
of territory from Austria’s Carinthia Province followed as well as the outlawing
of the Communist Party and the persecution of its members began. Attempts at
taking over Albania were held in check by the Great Powers. Fiume was controlled
jointly with Italy. The Agrarian Reform Laws would remain a thorny issue in the
years to come.
parliament was uncertain about the place of the national minorities in the new
state. They were uncertain whether to grant citizenship to the Germans or make
them second-class citizens. Many preferred a “transfer” of the German population
to Austria. In 1923 the Germans were given a vote for the first time. But
Germans had been conscripted into the Yugoslav Army long before that and sent to
the south and stationed in Macedonia. The minority rights guaranteed in the peace
treaties with Austria-Hungary were not acceptable to the Yugoslavian Government in
1921 or 1931.
Serbs had their greatest difficulties with the Croats. They continued to act up
in parliament and opposed the Constitution at every turn. Some were arrested as
enemies of the State including Raditsch, and Matschek as well as others. Matschek
took over the leadership of the Croatian Farmers’ Party and worked to change the
Constitution. He was simply representing the growing rebellion throughout
situation the Germans in Croatia faced was becoming more and more difficult. The
Croats asked for their electoral support and they knew this would be seen as an
affront to the ruling party. But on the whole the Germans avoided political
involvements. When the land reform laws were put into effect they realized that
the government was not well disposed towards them. They were patient, although
they had anxieties about the future. But envy of the “wealth” of the Germans and
railing against it became a national pastime. The goal of the South Slavs was the
“Yugoslavianization” of all the population.
with a failing economy led to the migration of many of the younger German men to
Brazil, Canada and the US. Agricultural prices were falling, so those with trades
moved to the towns and cities in search of work.
ownership reforms were meant to divide up the large estates, which in fact never
happened. The estate owners managed to give up unsuitable land or the land their
tenants had cleared (Welimirowatz had 500 acres of such land). The handouts were
only small parcels of land to veterans (Serbs only) or Slavs “coming home” from
Hungary. The only universal policy in the midst of all the corruption that took
place was to freeze out the Hungarians, Romanians and Danube Swabians and prevent
them from benefiting from the reform in any way.
continuing crisis in parliament led to King Alexander’s introduction of a Royal
Dictatorship. On January 6, 1929 the Constitution was set aside and royal power
was established. The parliament was dismissed and all political parties and
organizations were forbidden. On December 3, 1929 the name Yugoslavia was first
used officially. The king attempted to divide the Kingdom into nine Bans
and the prefecture of Belgrade to neutralize the ethnic divisions of the old
historical provinces. In reality in this way the Serbs formed the majority in six
of the Bans and for that reason his idea was not acceptable. A new Constitution
was promulgated with a cameral system. Along with the elected parliament there
would also be a senate. The populace would only elect half of the senators. The
king would name the other half. In 1940 two German senators were appointed:
Bishop Philip Popp of the Lutheran Church and Dr. Grassl a leading German figure
in the nation.
there was an uprising in many regions by anti-Serbian Croats who were members of
an organization called: Ustasche meaning struggle.
established a Croatian self-government programme in 1932 and two months later the
Slovenes also demanded self-government. Because of the pressures and tensions of
the nationalities’ issues among the brother Slavs, the king and government did not
deal with the economic and social issues. Foreign affairs policies had resulted
in good relationship with Bulgaria, reached a compromise with Italy, a Balkan Pact
with Romania, Greece and Turkey and a small “war pact” with Romania and
Czechoslovakia all opposed to any reinstitution of a “Greater Hungary” after the
Treaty of Trianon. During a state visit in France in October 1934 the king was
assassinated along with the French foreign minister. His under age successor
Peter II was controlled by a Regent’s Council headed by his uncle, his father’s
brother Paul. According to the census of 1931 Serbs accounted for 44% of the
population and the Croats were 34%. The two were not reconciled with one another
when Hitler appeared on the scene in Germany. Economic ties between Germany and
Yugoslavia were strengthened and Yugoslavia left the orbit of France and sided
with Germany on the international scene. The approaching Second World War would
be the setting for the Croats gaining the independence that had
always eluded them in the past.
In an ironic
way the growing and overwhelming nationalism of the Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs
and Croats awakened a similar “national” consciousness among the various groups of
gone about their work for decades whether in agriculture or their trades and were
content with their destiny even though preserving their language, faith and
customs also proved to be hard work. They were tied together in their village
communal life and relationships and built a life of their own experiencing common
difficulties together. They assumed they would be able to maintain the use of
their mother tongue and never thought for a moment that the State would encroach
upon this natural human right of all peoples. German was their language to
express intimacy, family life and prayer, community life and song and
celebration. It was no wonder that they could not grasp the idea that their
children could no longer speak their mother tongue at school and could be won to
the concept of total assimilation. When others called for liberty, equality and
fraternity for themselves they were not considered to be part of the package.
After 1918 equality for the Germans in Hungary meant to become Hungarians while in
Yugoslavia it meant giving up their Protestant faith, folk identity and heritage.
the Schwäbische Deutsche Kulturband (Swabian German Cultural
Union) was formed in June of 1920. Local groups of the SDKB as it was known were
formed in 97 communities throughout Yugoslavia and by 1924 there were 128. This
organization was not in opposition to the State in any way. It transcended the
confessional differences and sought to preserve and maintain their national
identity. Their first concern was the retention of their German schools and the
education and preparation of German schoolteachers. The organization was banned
parliament approved the voting rights of the minorities a Partei die
Deutschen (German Party) was established in Hatzfeld in December of 1922.
They were permitted to campaign in the election of 1923. They supported the basic
tenants of the DSKD: language rights, cultural development, German place names to
be retained and peace and friendship with their neighbours. They wanted the
nation to achieve the equality of which it spoke for the sake of their homeland.
Eight of their candidates were elected to the Belgrade parliament in 1923. In
1925 there were five. 1927 had six. 1931 there was only one. 1932 saw the
election of two. In 1935 there were two again and in 1938 there were three.
school demands were recognized and promises were made but were not kept. In 1927
the SDKB was allowed to resume its work and newly formed groups rose from 29 to
64. With the coming to power of the Royal Dictatorship in 1929 all political
parties were banned. This worked to cool off the Danube Swabians who were
basically patient and loyal to the State. But in the new Constitution of the King
in 1931 the rights of the minorities were not anchored in it.
As the SDKB
was allowed to begin operations for the third time in 1931 many of the groups had
lost courage and refused to believe that promises would be kept this time either.
In 1931 there 13 local groups; in 1936 there were a total of 96; in 1934 there
were 129 and in 1941 it had expanded to 3,250 local groups. The membership was
75,000 and consisted primarily of the heads of households. The assassination of
the king in 1934 alarmed the Danube Swabians. They too streamed to Belgrade and
participated in the national mourning. The Swabians were sad that the king had
not been able to carry out his reforms.
there was a crisis within the SDKB as the younger generation within its membership
bound itself to what they called: the Renewal Movement. They were
simply impatient with the older leadership that had sought and fought for so long
for what appeared were only minimal gains if any in the language and schools
minority in Slavonia was not organized until March of 1936 in Esseg. It was named
The Cultural and Welfare Union of Germans (KWVD) and was founded by
Branimir Altgayer who was elected its head. The Croatisation of the Swabians in
Croatia/Slavonia could only be halted by a united effort by the entire German
population. They wanted to be “true” and “loyal” to the State but also their
national heritage and identity and ethnicity. In a short time 74 local groups
were organized and in addition to the joining of younger men some whole villages
left the SDKB and joined the KWVD. In 1936 the first German weekly newspaper
appeared: Slavonian Peoples News. 1938 saw the reunion of
the KWVD and the SDKB.
meanwhile domestic politics changed to the advantage of the German minority. The
continuing opposition of the Croats to the central government in Belgrade led to
the growing division and animosity between the Serbs and Croats. At the same time
the economic ties with Germany expanded which led to better relationships between
the German minority and the government. All of this set the scene for the coming
conflict and the opening salvos of the Second World War.
Thursday of 1941 (Grünen Donnerstag) the reality of the coming war
became a fact as all able-bodied men in Welimirowatz had to report in Našice. It
was the day of national mobilization. The names of those drafted were read out in
public. Most of the men could return home where they were to await further
orders. All radios were confiscated and the Swabians were cut off from the rest
of the worl
On April 10,
1941 the Independent State of Croatia was proclaimed in Agram. The leader of the
Ustasche Movement, Dr. Ante Pavelic formed a government in Agram on April
16, 1941 with himself at its head.
thousand-year-old dream of the Croats was finally fulfilled. It was a “child” of
the war and dependent upon the Axis Powers: Germany and Italy. Because Bosnia
and Herzegovina were annexed to it as well it was even larger than “Greater
Croatia” of the Middle Ages. The Ustasche exiles now returned back home and with
Pavelic they began a reign of terror. The massive expulsion of the Serbian
population that had settled in Croatia after the First World War and the forced
conversation of Orthodox Serbs to Roman Catholicism and the extermination camps
that were set up all played a role in driving the Serbian population into the arms
of Tito’s Communist partisans. The Serbs threatened with genocide and
extermination fled to the mountains and forests and joined his forces there. The
Slavic brothers battled one another in the forests and mountains.
Swabians, as the “relatives” of a friendly state were handled carefully and given
some special privileges. They were taxed according to Croatian regulations and
were to fulfill all of the obligations of citizenship but also received such great
liberties that as a “National Group” they were practically a state within the
formed Volksgruppe (Group with a common ethnic identity) included all of
the Germans throughout Croatia, Slavonia, Syrmien and Bosnia. Of these 180,000
Germans the vast majority were Roman Catholics while some 40,000 were Lutherans
and 4,000 were Reformed.
in Croatia were officially recognized and given judicial and other public rights
that were codified in the law. They were equal citizens in the new state. The
Führer (leader) of the Volksgruppe was given the equivalency of one of the
State Directors. Germans were guaranteed political, economic, social and cultural
freedoms and self-government over their own affairs under Croatian Law.
more than merely cultural autonomy that the Serbs had in Austria and much more
than what the Swabians had vainly demanded in Yugoslavia. All of the attempts at
Croatizing the German population by the parliamentary government since 1918 were
abandoned. The ethnic German schools, Credit Unions, the Volkstum (local
defence forces) in 498 local areas in the land, the equalization of German as one
of the languages of government offices were achieved in a unitary state. The
issue of military service would blow the whole fabric apart.
In June and
December of 1943 and the summer of 1944 Partisans raided Welimirowatz. They
surrounded the unprotected village and stormed into the yards and houses and
demanded to be waited on by the villagers. They also had to provide for those who
stood guard as sentries. During the occupation the housewives were ordered to
cook for whole groups of men but always had to taste the food they prepared in the
presence of the Partisans to assure them it had not been poisoned. This kind of
mistrust was unwarranted. As shots from arriving Croatian and German troops rang
out next day they left the village in a hurry.
balked at the idea of remaining alone in their houses and invited others to live
with them. Men often hid in manure piles or inside of the chimneys of outdoor
bake ovens. Mothers travelled to Esseg and stayed with their children who were at
school and did so for extended periods.
visit by the Partisans they cut down the telephone poles to Našice and left them
there on the road. In December they came after midnight. At the time they were
looking for two men on furlough. The father was able to sneak away and the son
was hidden in his grandmother’s bed under her heavy feather Teck
(comforter). Instead the Partisans took all kinds of booty: bedding, shirts,
suits, socks, groceries, a radio and jewellery. They also broke into other houses
and the local store and took their booty with them in wagons that they also
The mill in
Našice was destroyed and the men now had to drive to Esseg with their wheat. On
the way home they were relieved of their flour by the Partisans but were allowed
to come home. The threshing machines of the neighbouring villages were also
destroyed. In 1944 Welimirowatz was one of the few villages able to thresh their
crops because a district Defence Force was stationed there.
battles raged, the constant fear and anxiety were unnerving.
It was the
rapidly approaching Eastern Front in their direction that put the Danube Swabian
population in its path in danger. The orders for leaving came as no surprise. In
the hope of returning soon when the fortunes of war shifted to the advantage of
the German Army many did not find the leave taking of their homes that difficult.
One after another, from east to west across Slavonia, the unending evacuation
columns were sent in motion like the first settler treks into the area almost two
hundred years earlier. The women checked the harnesses and gear one more time;
neighbours brought out their wagon; the local blacksmith repaired one more wheel;
a canvas roof was set in place over half of the wagon. Some bedding was bundled;
clothing scattered in suitcases and bags; sacks of flour, fried meat in lard in
large stone crocks; sausages, large loaves of bread and baking of all kinds. All
of it had been set-aside for the day. Two days before the departure they
were still working in their fields. The harvest was in; winter wheat was sown;
and the land was tilled waiting for next season. Everyone planned on an early
evacuation became more and more obvious, the Croats and Slovaks in the
neighbouring villages came to Welimirowatz and wanted to buy cattle, machinery,
wheat and corn at give-away-prices.
Many of the
men were in the military somewhere far from home unable to support their families
in this situation. The oncoming war front, the bombing raids were a go-ahead for
all of the ethnic German haters. The plan to exterminate the Swabians unveiled at
Jajce in November of 1943 was unknown to the Swabians themselves.
the vicinity came and offered to look after homes and possessions, cattle and
machinery until the owners returned. It never dawned on the Croats that the
Swabians would never come “home” again.
Some of the
villagers locked the doors of their houses and took the keys with them because
they believed they would be coming home soon. There were others sneaking around
the village just watching and sizing things up. They were the booty takers.
27, 1944 Našice was under attack by the Partisans and the sound of artillery could
be heard all day long. Their wagons that were fully loaded stood in the yards and
they were ready to go. Some items were hurriedly unpacked, repacked or replaced.
But the order to leave was not given.
finally came. A Sunday. October 28, 1944. The wagons had to be ready for
departure standing out on the village street by 10:00 am. For those families
without wagons or a team of horses the German Army forced some Croats from nearby
villages to bring their wagons and joined the column. They were promised that
they could return once the column reached Pécs in Hungary. The obvious fear and
mistrust of these men was easily understandable on the part of the families they
took with them.
waiting to hear the order to leave, they first heard the rolling of the drum as
the Kleinrichter made his last announcement in the life of the village.
With trembling lips he called out: “Liebe Leute wir
mussen jetzt unser Heimat verlassen. Vorverts.”
(My dear people we now have to leave our home. Let us go forward.) What everyone
had awaited but had not wanted to happen was now set into motion.
As all of
the wagons and vehicles still stood on the streets or waited on the bridges the
Wendel family began to ring the church bells. How sad they sounded. All across
the village in the yards and by the houses people stood and wept. The old
grandmothers with their brood of grandchildren around them; the ancient
grandfather the head of the house, the teenage boys and the women now on their own
ventured out into the unknown as wagon followed wagon in a long column with a
final: “Im Gottes Jesus Namen.” (In the Name of
Jesus) they set their teams and wagons in motion.
One man on
furlough was able to accompany and assist his family for the first part of the
trek. He eventually had to say farewell. He never returned from the war. The
wagon train moved very slowly as it reached the neighbouring district. There was
a German checkpoint here. The captain in charge only let men over sixty years of
age pass, along with the women and children. Old people and small children were
allowed to sit in the wagons while the others had to walk alongside of their
wagons. About one dozen men had to stay behind at the checkpoint. They were
placed in the Home Guard and were posted in various villages in the
neighbourhood. Most of them would never see their families again.
night was spent in the Croatian village of Bentisch-Anzi. The German military
took care of the horses. The next morning the trek headed across Rakitowitz and
Poretsch and then towards Unter Miholtz. Here the refugees spent their second
night. But there was no sleep to be had due to the sounds of battle that raged in
the area they had just passed through. Before daybreak they left to cross the
Drava River into Hungary. The river crossing was difficult and only the drivers
could remain in the wagons, the others were taken across by German troops in their
barges. Those who had been driven by Croats were left here and their drivers
returned home and they would wait for eight days to be evacuated by train. They
were sent to Thuringia and Silesia. Some of the wagons were now sent on to the
Steiermark in Austria. The largest group ended up in Linz and sent to live with
farm families in the area. Their flight ended on November 28th exactly
one month after leaving home. Some 150.000 had been evacuated in rain and snow
and constant frigid cold.
Volksgruppe leader Brandimir Altgayer was unlike Sepp Janko and the others who
fled to save their own skins but refused to give the order to evacuate in the
Banat and Batschka. Despite fierce opposition by the German authorities he
managed to get approval for the evacuation. He did not want to see the tragedy
that had already taken place in the Banat to be repeated. The Swabians of
Slavonia have him to thank they too did not end up in Tito’s extermination camps
or face deportation to the USSR. He was surrendered to the Partisans by the
British for judgment after the war and was executed.
war ended on May 8, 1945. In the Russian Zone of Austria, well- intentioned
Russian officers were of the opinion that refugees from Yugoslavia were free to go
back home and encouraged them to do so. Austria had nothing to offer them. It
hardly had enough even for itself. In different parts of the Steiermark, Lower
and Upper Austria transports of returning refugees were assembled. Some sixty
families from Welimirowatz living in the area of Kirchdorf along with two hundred
other families from Yugoslavia were shipped in cattle cars from Linz to Salzburg
and finally to the border. Before going through the customs and immigration
routine they got into discussions with Serbian royalists that were with them who
earnestly warned them not to go any farther. They wanted to go home too but only
if there was change in the system as they put it. They had heard of the
plundering, shootings and the extermination camps in operation and what awaited
any returning Swabian family. After the people pleaded with the English officers
in charge the transport did not continue across the border.
families involved were those of Johann Büchler, Johann Brandt, Heinrich Brauchler,
Fillip Drumm, Fillip Färber, Johann Felde, Johann Gehring, Heinrich and Peter Greb,
Jakob Hebel, Heinrich and Karl Heil, Elisabeth Heineck, Friedrich and Peter
Hoffmann, Adam Huber, Fillip and Peter Benz, Adam and Peter Johler, Martin
Kampferseck, George Körper, Fillip and Johann Klees, Jakob Kolb, Friedrich Lamb,
Jakob Lottche, Heinrich März, Heinrich May, Johann, Fillip and Johann Medel, Karl
Müller, Peter Neumann, Heinrich Jakob, Johann and Peter Pister, Christian Poth,
Jakob Raff, Andreas Reinhardt, Heinrich Reiss, Stefan Reitenbach, Reter Reitz,
Franz Roos, Adam Schell, Peter Schira, Peter Schmidt, Josef Schramm, Alexander and
Johann Schuck, Heinrich Stock, Heinrich Tenz, Friedrich and Heinrich Toth, Gerog,
Jakob and Karl, Christian and Heinrich Wendel, Adam Zepp.
groups were not as fortunate. Forty-four villagers from Welimirowatz were in a
transport involving two thousand people that included the elderly Schlafmanns.
They were robbed and plundered several times. Their horses and wagons were taken
away from them and then they were force marched on foot by Partisans who jabbed
those who slowed down with their bayonets. They came home to empty and plundered
houses. A few mornings later they were picked up in lorries to “register” at the
town hall. They were arrested and put into an internment camp at Schipowatz by
Našice and in July 1945 they were taken to the labour and extermination camp at
In this the
largest internment camp in Slavonia set up by the Central Committee the first
Swabians and persons with German sounding names were first interned in May 1945.
Men, women and children were separated in barracks without windowpanes, no heat
and shoddy roofs. Three hundred people were crowded into each barrack. The
Commandant was a German hater. There was no water and no sanitation. Every day
sixteen to thirty-two people died. They were buried in mass graves. The
prisoners were left starving and vulnerable to disease. In the summer of 1945
groups began making escape attempts across Hungary to Austria and Germany. The
camp held up to five thousand persons at one time. When it was full to capacity
new internees were sent to the labour camps at Welika, Pisanitza, Krndja, Darda,
Tenje and many others.
survivors of Valpovo were sent to the living hell of Rudolfsgnad in the Banat.
who died during the Second World War in addition to the men who were killed in
action or are missing, two of the villagers were shot by the Partisans: Jakob
Brauchler 24 years of age and Fillip Riegel at the age of 39 years. Both of the
men were at home on furlough and were taken by the Partisans and shot after being
following villagers died in various camps:
Benz nee Knittel 49 years of age died in the labour camp at Darda
Büchler 38 years of age at the Valpovo Camp
Klees 22 years of age died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Russia
Medel nee Dermer 58 years of age at the Valpovo Camp
Medel 63 years of age at the starvation camp in Rudolfsgnad
Else Nothdurft 2 years of age perished in the camp at Valpovo
38 years of age died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Russia
Schlaffmann nee Reinhardt 57 years of age at the Valpovo Camp
Schlaffmann 74 years of age at the extermination camp in Pettau
Schramm 42 years of age died at the camp in Valpovo
35 years of age died at the camp in Valpovo
Tenz 77 years of age died in the labour camp in Darda
Winterstein 44 years of age in the starvation camp at Rudolfsgnad